Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

Many of my students are fans of the “Humans of (insert city name here)” series of pages on Facebook, which posts stories of ordinary women and men residing in the named city as told in their own words. These vignettes are touching, poignant, and funny, and meant to convey our common humanity, regardless of where we come from or where we are now located on the globe. It is easy to see why this series is so popular especially among the youth. The vignettes are bite-sized easy reading, very personal, and accompanied with a well-shot image of the speaker. In form and content it provides an easy channel through which one can look for positivity in social media.

Lately, a “Humans of Amsterdam” post featured a Filipina, genially smiling at the camera, with the following narrative:

“In the Philippines when you are 27 and single people start to ask about when you are getting married. I come from a middle-class family. In the Philippines middle-class means you eat 3 times a day. I have two younger brothers and in order for them to go to university I worked night shifts in a call centre to help pay for their tuition. During the day I would study and at night I would be working. For six years I would only sleep a few hours a night. After my graduation I got the opportunity to work abroad. I do miss home but for the first time in my life I work normal hours and I get to sleep at night and I even have time for hobbies. I’m starting to get into knitting and I love traveling and photography. I’m 32 and it took me a long time to get where I am in life and I’m not even a little bit worried about getting married.”

It was shared enough for my Facebook’s algorithm to pick it up and feature it on my News Feed.

Like other “Humans of…” posts, my former students (and in this case, mostly young women) were the number one sharers. The image and the text clearly struck a chord. Judging by their comments it was this young Filipina’s defiance of conventions and, as it were, daring to live her own life free (thus far) from pressures like marriage.

I have to say that the post struck me too, but it wasn’t for the same reason. It struck me for that offhand observation about what it meant to be middle class in the Philippines, plainly stated as ‘being able to eat three meals a day.’ If you stop and think about it, the implications of that statement are deeply disturbing. I always thought that being “middle class” meant stability and security, of not having too much, but not having too little either. How do you then make sense of the precariousness she went through, which contrasted all the more with her current condition outside the country?

I am reminded of the late journalist Joe Bageant’s book “Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s class war,” a deeply personal account of his return after three decades to his “redneck” hometown of Winchester, Virginia.

In it, he directly states that “many are working poor but kid themselves that they are middle class – partly out of pride and partly because of the long-running national lie that most Americans are middle class.” He observed how “the working folk in (my) old neighborhood – though they own more electronic gadgets and newer cars – are faring worse… in quality of life and basic security.” One of the problems, he says, is that many Americans are conditioned to think of themselves as middle class: as long as they

work hard, as long as they don’t rabble-rouse, as long as they have some kind of access to “the thinnest observable material conditions of life,” then it is easy to be happy and content and to continue with what he bluntly calls the “delusion” of being middle class.

Bageant’s book came out during George W. Bush’s second term when many people were criticizing the latter’s re-election that was carried by the mostly poor southerners like those Bageant wrote about. Today in the Trump era, it may be worth re-visiting this again. Bageant explains how this conditioning of thought among his fellow citizens is exploited to make them conservative, vote Republican, and generally make political decisions that are ultimately detrimental to them.

Could something similar be happening to Filipinos? This for me was what was more thought-provoking in the Humans of Amsterdam post. Since when did we accept that it was enough just to have three meals a day? Since when did not being able to sleep well (or as a whole being unable to maintain good physiological wellbeing) for six years because of work also become acceptable? Since when did being a hair’s breadth away from losing your job, or stopping your studies, mean that you were still “middle class”? If both of her parents were working, since when did a double-income household arrangement no longer become a viable means to live a comfortable life? This Filipina is unwittingly akin to the small child in the tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” who, in all innocence, spontaneously articulated a truth that so many refused to see: that the emperor was naked, after which the child merrily skipped away.

I had hoped that my former students and others who have re-posted this would be able to see beyond the initial individual dilemma that spoke so well to many other young women who are tired of outdated gender pressures and expectations. This is not to say that this sentiment is invalid. I’m a Filipina too and I can absolutely relate (and since I got married the question has morphed into when I would have kids, so believe me, I know!). But the framing of her narrative (and its repetition) as just a matter of whether or not to take the plunge detracts from that bolt of insight, that off-the- cuff (and therefore brimming with truth) remark that should be the one that speaks volumes to Filipinos in the home country and overseas.

What to do now? Certainly it is not to merrily skip away, as the child in the story did. I just have two quick suggestions. The first is for those involved in the progressive movement who exert the conscious effort to deepen their knowledge about and experiences with the different sectors making up Philippine society.

I am reminded of that ruckus late last year about a young call center agent who mocked a progressive anti-ASEAN mobilization on social media. Overnight he became a poster boy for the “apathy” of millennials and a punching bag upon which many activists (understandably emotional from that politically charged week) took out their aggravation. While I understand that what he wrote was insulting, how was hurling insults back going to persuade him to change his mind, or the minds of others who may, from their very specific point of view, share the same sentiment?

In a way, he and the young Filipina from Amsterdam are in the same boat in the sense that their background, upbringing, and personal experiences allow a particular worldview to be developed: for him, all you need is to have a job to make the Philippines a better place; for her, freedom means finding one’s self first without the pressure to get married right away. But this does not mean that they are incapable of pinpointing wider truths and articulating them. That possibility is always there and any progressive worth his or her salt should be ready to harness that to foster deeper social awareness with whomever they are talking to and in whatever context they may be.

The second suggestion is more of an urging for the many people like this young Filipina to keep their minds open and continue to ask the questions above. Hopefully they will come to realize that while there is nothing wrong with graciousness and acceptance, there is also nothing wrong with being outraged at injustice and in doing something about it. And that when it comes to doing something, they have such a broad array of friends and allies to fight alongside with: laborers, farmers, the urban poor, workers in the informal sector, semi-professionals and other with whom this dissolving “middle class” actually have so much more in common than mere labels can convey. (davaotoday.com)

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